Creative Light Blog

Night Sky Season :: Be Prepared


Night sky photography is becoming ever more popular these days.  The night sky has fascinated man for millennia.  Vincent Van Gough wrote about his fascination with the night sky, writing: “It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day.”  Certainly his fascination with the stars was the inspiration of his painting, “Starry Night”.  No less today when we venture out to the dark countryside, with our without camera in hand, we cannot help but look up on a dark night, allowing the stars and planets to captivate our attention and imaginations, allowing us to speculate about the vastness of our galaxy and the universe.

Vincent Van Gough wrote about his fascination with the night sky, writing: “It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day.”

Without a doubt the advancement of technology in camera sensors has opened up a whole new area of photography largely unavailable to us 15 years ago.  With each new camera generation, which seems to span only about 18 -24 months,  low light capture capabilities continue to advance.  It’s no wonder that nighty sky photography is one of the fastest growing segments of landscape photography.  So if you are ready to venture out into the dark night, be prepared.  If you are, you can come away with some amazing images.  Here are some things to consider

Equipment

Camera:  First I will assume that most realize you are not going to be taking a smart phone to a dark sky area to shoot Milky Way pictures.  However, there are a wide variety of digital SLRs all of which are not best suited for night sky photography.  That said, if you understand what features are important and the limitations of your equipment, it  can help in making decisions to get the most out of your night photography event.

Full-frame cameras a best suited because the tend to have a higher dynamic range and usually perform better than cropped sensor cameras for night photography.  Which full-frame camera is best?  The one you have.  Seriously, there are a number of models/makes that have proven performance in low light.  Probably one of the best is the Sony A7RIII, Sony’s latest flagship model.  It’s sensor is simply a level above others in my opinion.  But there are others that do quite well including Canon’s 5D Mark IV, as well as it predecessor the 5D Mark III.  The Canon entry level full-frame the 6D also does well.  Nikon’s 810 and 850 are also great, as are some of the earlier full frame versions.  The Olympus OPM-D E-M5 Mark II and the Panasonic Lumix are also great performers. There are others as well.  However, do not despair if your camera has a crop sensor.  You can still get some good images and as important have some fun in the learning process.

Lenses:  One thing that is important regardless of camera format is the speed of your lens.  Really you should have a lens of f/2.8 or faster.  While you can get by with one with f/3.5 if you have to, realize you are losing a half stop of light and will have to compensate by pushing your ISO even higher, resulting likely in  additional noise.  I will save a more in-depth discussion of lenses for another post but will say that Rokinon/Samyang lenses are excellent lenses for night photography, although they are all manual and may take a little getting used to.  The good side is because they are manual they are less expensive than other prime lenses.

Technique

FocusingNow focusing will be one of your biggest problems.  Here’s why.  For the Milky Way you will likely be shooting during a New Moon phase.  It will be quite dark and your camera cannot detect the contrast of elements enough to find focus.  You must have the stars sharp so focusing on infinity is paramount.  Now you can try using a hyper focal distance but this does not always work and I find it better to focus on infinity and rely either on ensuring appropriate distance is maintained from any foreground or taking two exposures: one for the foreground and one for the stars, then blend them later in Photoshop or other software.  Here are a couple of focus tips: 1) Focus on something beyond 30 meters to approximate infinity.  This can be a distant light or even something illuminated with a flashlight or green laser pointer.  2) Pre-focus while you still have light to see and verify infinity focus; then, tape down  your focus ring and turn off auto focus. 3) Use Live View on your camera and zoom in on a distant light or bright star and focus, again remembering to tape your focus ring down with some gaffers tape after verifying focus.

The best way to determine this is to use the 500 Rule as a guide (500/focal length = max time for exposure).

Exposure:  Your ISO setting for Milky Way photography will likely be between 3200 – 12800, depending on your camera’s capabilities.  In most cases you will likely be around 6400.  You want your stars to appear as points of light in your image with little or no star trailing so to ensure this you should keep your exposure times appropriate for the lens focal length in use.  The best way to determine this is to use the 500 Rule as a guide (500/focal length = max time for exposure).  For example:  24mm lens would be ~21 sec (500/24 = 20.8333).  This is based on a full-frame sensor so if you have a cropped sensor you should do the math to convert the focal length it to full-frame equivalent before applying the 500 rule.  Good news is you only have to do this once to determine your max exposure time, then you will always have it for future sessions.  But reasonably, if you keep your exposures 25 sec or below you should be fine.

I will be posting more on this subject in future blogs.  For now just go out and have fun with it and explore how the night sky can captivate your imagination.  + We are in the middle of Milky Way season and regardless of the equipment you currently have get out and practice the technique and you might be surprised at your results while having a blast doing it.  In future posts I will go deeper into focusing, composing, best times to photograph the Milky Way, white balance settings, light painting, star trail techniques and more.

Comments and questions are welcomed.  I will always get back to answer any questions.

Visit and SUBSCRIBE to my YouTube Channel : https://www.youtube.com/c/CraigMcCordPhotography51

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2018 Looking Forward

Canon EOS 5DSR, .6 sec, f/22, EF 100-400L @ 370mm, ISO 100 Buttes looking East just outside Jackson, WY after an early dusting of snow.

Often we see the trend at year’s end  of reviewing the “best of”, “worst of”, the “review of” everything from movies, politics, the passing of famous persons, tweets, you name it. The list seems endless.  And of course we as photographers engage in this as we post or best (certainly not worst) images of the previous year.  Even Facebook offers a slide show of your work  or images for the previous year as an option to post to your Facebook timeline.  While there’s nothing wrong in my mind with this, I just didn’t feel motivated to follow the crowd this year.  Maybe I’m just too lazy to do the editorial review to come up with that list just for a one-day post to Facebook or elsewhere.

As I start this new year I will simply look forward to a path I hope to take with my work.   Maybe a kind of resolution but not in such a defining or absolute way.  Certainly I want to continue to grow and develop my creative eye and post processing skills.  By doing this it can only show up in the end product, the final image.  My work should continue to improve overall, which in turn provides fuel and motivation to continue to explore new techniques and further push the limits of photographic skills.

How might one proceed on such a path one might ask?  If you examined from a traditional “New Year’s resolution” standpoint, it may appear somewhat nebulous.  My intent though is to remain rather flexible because I am not sure what direction I will take as time moves forward.  Some considerations which I admonish young aspiring photographers to do certainly should apply.  These are valid in my view regardless of one’s skill level, particularly with regard to developing your creative eye.  That is, to study the work of other accomplished photographers and take lots of pictures.  Push the envelope, make mistakes and learn from both.

Other things I will no doubt focus on:

  • Focusing further on time-lapse techniques
  • Long exposure techniques
  • Reviewing increasing luminosity masking techniques
  • Increasing my YouTube segments to offer tutorials to other photographers
  • Expanding my workshop and seminar schedule

I hope you will continue to visit the blog , subscribe to my YouTube channel and FB page.  I am always interested in your feedback and any requests for tutorials in specific areas where you have an interest.  Maybe I might even have the honor of you attending one of my scheduled workshops for 2018′

Workshops

     Kansas Night Sky at Castle Rock Badlands, March 17, 2018  Spring in the Missouri Ozarks, April 19 – 22, 2018   Oregon Coast, Bandon Oregon,  May 10-14, 2018  Oregon Coast, Cape Perpetua to Newport, May 17 -21, 2018  Kansas Night Sky at Castle Rock Badlands, June 8th and July 13th, 2018

  Persieds Meteor Shower over the Flint Hills of Kansas, August 11-12, 2018

   Fall Color in the Grand Tetons, September 25 – 29, 2018 

  Fall in the Missouri Ozarks, October 19 -22, 2018

  Big Sur Winter, December 8 – 11, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

The Columbia River Gorge – Scarred for a Generation

Punch Bowl Falls, Columbia River Gorge

 

Upper McCord Creek Falls. This area was devastated by the fire

I have made several trips to the Columbia River Gorge area over the past few years.  This beautiful stretch along Scenic Hwy 30 just East of Portland, Oregon has been a beautiful treasure for hikers, photographers, nature lovers, and tourist for years.  Unfortunately, due to extremely careless actions of one or several young teens, reportedly setting off fireworks near Punch Bowl Falls, this area will likely never be the same.  Over 33, 000 acres had burned at one count.  If you have ever been to this beautiful area and are familiar with some of the beautiful waterfalls and their locations in the Gorge, you can’t help but be devastated and heartbroken as you view some of the fire images.

AP Photo of Gorge Fire

Fortunately, no lives were lost but 3 homes burned and local business which rely on tourism will likely be devastated as many consider revising vacation plans.  Even I had planned a  photography workshop in the Gorge for 2018, which is now on hold indefinitely.  Undoubtedly, the Eagle Creek fire will cost us all in terms of the loss of some beautiful areas to explore and photograph, but the local economy and small businesses that depend on visitors will likely suffer as well.

Multnomah Falls, Columbia River Gorge

I read one opinion that the teens in question are not to blame.  Rather, it is global warming, logging and capitalism at fault.  Really?????  Now I have no desire to rehash arguments, pro or con, about global warming.  As far a logging, there is not logging in the Gorge and logging as an industry in Oregon has been greatly reduced over the years due to environmental issues.  No, the cause and blame is clear: the carelessness and insensitivity of young kids, who maybe lacked proper guidance or mentoring from adults in their lives.  But it goes beyond that.  In recent months we have heard of even adults who clearly were aware of their actions, being prosecuted for defacing landmarks in national parks.  In some cases actions like these are irresponsible careless acts and in other cases deliberate criminal acts.  Either way we must do more to educate our young to  preserve and protect the  beautiful natural resources we have the good fortune to enjoy.  I am 66 years old and will likely never see again see the beauty of the Gorge as I remembered this past Spring.

Oneanta Gorge, Columbia River Gorge. The Oneonta Tunnel was also a casualty of the Eagle Creek Fire

Okay, enough.  I’m off my soapbox.

 

 

Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 Remarkable

Chuck Wagon in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Rokinon 12mm f/2.8mm

 

During a recent Craig McCord Night Photography workshop at the Flying W Ranch in the Kansas Flint Hills , I brought along a newly acquired Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 full frame fish eye lens.  The workshop was to focus on night photography and I was reluctant to put into play the Rokinon fish eye, not yet having explored its potential.  My focus was properly on the workshop attendees.  However, the next morning I decided I would run it through a few paces with some test shots.

Wow, the tack sharp image quality blew me away.  I already owned the Rokinon 24mm f/1/4 and the 14mm f/2.8, both of which are fine manual lens and are high performers in photographing

Rokinon 12mm, f/2.0, 25 sec,

the night sky.  Already I could see this new 12mm fish eye lens  would be a great addition to my night shooting tool chest.  The lens is totally manual, but the manual focus is not a problem and in most cases you seem to have infinite depth of field.  There is very little field curvature issues and coma aberration is almost non-existent, a huge consideration in astrophotography.

Rokinon 12mm, f/2.8 Full Frame Fisheye

Price??   Well, that is another plus.  You can pick this jewel up for around $400 or less through B&H Photo.  You can probably get it even cheaper through Greentoe Name Your Price.  This is a far cry from say the Canon 11-24mm L for about $2800.

Filters:  Like most fisheye lenses, you can’t really  use filters without some rather expensive adapters and special filters.  I don’t really see this as an issue however because of how and when one employes this lens.

I could go on but I will leave it at highly recommending this as an addition to your equipment bag, especially if you like a little astrophotography.

Spring in the Ozarks

 

 

 

In just a week I will be heading back to the Missouri Ozarks in preparation for my Spring Ozark Workshop.  For some years I have been conducting both Spring an Fall workshops in the Shannon County area along the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, a part of the National Park System.  The area is replete with streams, shut-ins, old mills, natural springs and other features that make this area a photographer’s candy store.

An Ozark dogwood bloom.

The redbuds are already in spring bloom and a patchwork of blooming dogwoods will soon paint the hills of the Ozarks.  As I begin my 4 hour drive next week to reach one of my favorite shooting locations I will contemplate my planned shooting schedule.  I typically don’t like to set a  hard shoot schedule ahead of time

Blooming redbuds at Prairie Hollow Gorge, Shannon County, MO

because I prefer to take a couple of days to recon the area for stream conditions and researching new areas of interest.  While after photographing this area for a number of years, I still seem to find hidden gems.  Even the familiar places always seem to offer up subtle changes, or maybe one just begins to see in a broader sense.

Alley Mill and Spring, Shannon County, MO

Everyone loves the mills you can find in the area.  Alley Mill and Spring are one of the most photographed sites in Missouri, and for good reason.  The mill, part of the National Park Service and the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, was recently reconditioned.  The mill, while not a functioning mill, does have some of the original milling equipment still inside where the NPS now has a small gift shop and info center about the mill’s history.

Another attraction in the area are the natural springs.  One, about 15 minutes north of Eminence, MO, is Round Spring.  While not a huge spring at 55 feet deep,  it does pump out 26 million  gallons per day.  Another impressive spring is Blue Spring.  Now Blue Spring is deep enough at 300 feet to submerge the Statue of Liberty, all expect for a few feet.  And it is the 6th largest spring in Missouri with a discharge of 90 million gallons per day.  Seeing pictures of these springs people will often ask if they are really “that blue”.  Yes, they are.

Submerged snag at Blue Spring

 

Round Spring

Another feature of the are I always try to include is a visit with the wild horses of Shannon County.  For several years I could never catch these beautiful animals and began to refer to them as the “phantom horses of Shannon County”.  But have been more fortunate in last few years.  Workshop participants always love this treat and the opportunity to photography them.

 

 

Wild Horses of Shannon County

No doubt it will be another wonderful Spring in the Ozarks.

If you are interested in attending one of these great workshops in the future, please visit my workshop page.  Fall will be here before you know it.  Fall in the Ozarks is spectacular.

FALL WORKSHOP IN THE OZARKS DETAILS HERE

 

 

Whittemer House

Whittemer House

Just finished up planning details for my night photography workshop in the Kansas Flint Hills.  I must say there is something about night photography that I really enjoy, the sense of mystery, the vastness and beauty of the night sky, all making one realize how insignificant we are in relation the universe.

Exploring subject matter and doing a little night photography in preparation for my workshop made for a cold and lonely night.  That is one of the drawbacks.  Late nights, especially in the summer months when it does not get dark until late, can really mess with your sleep pattern.  But I must say the reward can make it all worthwhile.  If you are out alone though, the darkness can be rather spooky.  On this night there were horses out in a pasture at this location.  I knew they were there but they mostly stayed a couple hundred yards away.  After setting up one camera to take multiple continuous shots to potentially be used in a time lapse sequence,  I retreated to my vehicle to relax.  It was cold and a little windy so I thought I would warm up and check my email on my phone.   After about 10 minutes relaxing in my car something banged on the side of my truck.  Scared the bejeez out of me.  Turns out the horses must have gotten curious and decided to pay a visit and bump my truck as if to say, BOO!  Well, it worked.  I jumped out of the truck to see what or who was there.  I then noticed a group of four or five horses begin to wander off, probably engaging in a little horse’s laughter among themselves, having succeeded in spooking the visitor.  Having someone else along has a number of benefits, if for no other reason than combatting loneliness and warding off those unsuspecting bumps in the night.

Notwithstanding the interesting experiences of the evening, I came away with a few images and was able to compile this brief star trail/Milky Way time lapse.

Hope you enjoy….Comments and shares welcomed. 🙂

if interested in attending this comprehensive classroom and field workshop, August 19-20, 2017, check out the details at this here:  NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE KANSAS FLINT HILLS

A Few More of My Black and White Focus

Wyoming Aspens

 

A few months back I posted that I was going to lean toward returning to my black and white roots, that I would focus this year on my black and white work.  Now, I soon realized I could not do that in the purest sense.  I still must work in color as well to support demands of my photographic workshops.  But still I am committed to printing only my personal b/w work for any exhibit or simply my own personal enjoyment.  Here are a couple of images included in late work that I hope you enjoy.  Would love to hear what you think.

 

Falling Springs Mill, Missouri Ozarks

 

Haceta Head, Low Tide, Oregon Coast
Moulton Barn, Grand Tetons

The Annual Prairie Burn

 

 

Moonlight Over the Prairie Burn
Moonlight Over the Prairie Burn

The annual Flint Hills prairie burns are again approaching.  In just a few short weeks ranchers in the Flint Hills will begin their annual burning of the prairie.   This event has become an event to experience for casual observers and photographers alike.

Where and What are the Flint Hills?

The Flint Hills – Big sky, expansive landscape, and a horizon that stretches on forever is the beautiful four-million-acre swath of land in eastern Kansas makes up about 80 percent of what is left of the world’s tallgrass prairie, according to the Nature Conservancy. The prairie’s is composed of mostly Big and little bluestem, switchgrass and Indian grass, and a geology of limestone and shale.  Historically it was known as Bluestem Pastures or Blue Stem Hills.  Zebulon Pike was an explorer who first coined the name Flint Hills after entering in his journal about “very ruff flint hills”.  It was suggested that over time Flint Hills had a better ring to it than something like Bluestem Pastures.

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Dusk on the Burning Prairie

A Bit about the Flint Hills

It’s written that clay soil and cherty (flint) gravel is what saved the Flint Hills from the plow, While there were some areas used for agriculture during the period between the Civil War and the 1900’s, much has been turned back into pasture. Among Flint Hills folklore, author James Kindall, suggested the Osage Indians, after having been displaces for the third time to what is not the Flint Hills, were pleased about its unsuitability as farmland as the tribe was unlikely to have to move again.

Why do they Burn?

The Prairie Burns
The Prairie Burns

 

 

Prairie fires are essential to maintaining the unique ecology of the flint hills. Native Americans used fire on the prairie to generate new growth that attracted bison. And later, with the arrival of cattle in substantial numbers in the 1860s-1870s, burning and grazing, as key range-management methods, have helped maintain the structure and function of the tallgrass ecosystem.

Without the burning practices the prairie, which provide nutrients and help the grasses grow, would become mostly a scrub forest of essentially Eastern Red Cedars and would have little practical use for anything. As such, the ranchers have a springtime ritual, which sustains the lush grasses for the cattle and has come to provide unique and beautiful opportunities for photography. While the winter and spring weather will determine when the burns take place, it usually happens during a period around mid-March through the latter part of April. Last year the burn took place following a two-year hiatus because of drought conditions; though, high spring-time winds can also cause ranches to cancel or postpone  planned burns.

Prairie Burn Photography Workshops

For the last couple of years Craig McCord Photography Workshops teamed with Manhattan Kansas photographer, Jason Soden, conducting several exclusive prairie burn photography workshops. It is really a joyful experience, not only for the great photography involvement, but to get to know the ranchers and their way of life. These folks are true Americans that love their simple but  hard-working  lifestyle and are happy to share their stories and experiences with visitors.

Photographers work their creative magic during the burn
Photographers work their creative magic during the burn

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While photographing the burns it was a pleasure to watch young rancher-to-be children participating in the springtime prairie burn ritual. Then later they played and roasted hot-dogs as the elders prepared the cowboy meal for our photography group. As we relaxed around the camp fire enjoying our cowboy meal of pulled pork and all the fixings, including homemade cookies and brownies, we discussed photography and prepared to venture out for the second burn of the day, the dusk burn. This time of day for me is the most exciting, as the flames reach toward a red setting sun that creates cowboys silhouettes against the backdrop of the burning prairie.

This year we are again we will host a  host  Flint Hills Prairie burn photography workshop at the Clover Cliff Ranch and Bed and Breakfast in Elmdale, KS. .  We are looking forward to another fantastic exclusive photography event.  If you wish to take part in next year’s prairie burn workshops, send me an email at craig@craigmccordphotography.com and I will make sure you get on the list.

Sometimes it’s Best to Listen to that Guardian Angel

Log Jam, Oneonta Gorge, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

We as photographers, particularly landscape photographers, often take risks beyond what good judgement would allow, just to get the shot.  I have read of several instances where a photographer met an untimely fate by not following simple rules of common sense.  I guess some would say that common sense may not be really be all that common.  Nonetheless, photographers will take that one extra step, if only to get slightly closer, fine tune that composition, stay just a bit longer along the sea stacks (not realizing one is about to be trapped by a rising tide).  I have a photographer friend who a few years ago fell from a height of over 40ft while photographing in the Columbia River Gorge area trying to get into position for a unique shot of Punchbowl Falls.  He was very lucky, a couple of broken ribs, a ruptured spleen after hitting the cold water below,  and then several days in the hospital after having to be carried out of the gorge in a rescue basket.  Maybe there was a little injury to his pride as well.  As a side note, his camera and tripod were unharmed.  They remained standing on the outcropping from where he fell into the cold pool of water below the falls.

During my trip to the gorge two summers ago,  I wanted to photograph an area called Oneota Gorge, a popular area for many hikers and photographers.  One can hike this gorge when the water levels are accommodating,  much like Virgin Narrows in Zion National Park.  But unlike the  high red rock walls of the Narrows, the Oneota Gorge has high moss-covered granite walls lining the edges of the creek.  If you hike up Oneonta creek a little over a half mile you can reach Oneota falls, another great photographic opportunity.

One challenge I immediately faced when I arrived at Oneota Gorge was this huge log jam blocking easy access to the creek.  No problem I thought.  I could carefully climb the numerous granite boulders supporting the jam and then hop across the various logs to reach an area I could easily navigate upstream.  Easy right?  NOT!  I slowly climbed atop a few of the boulders, being very careful.  Even with good hiking shoes, these rocks were very slick.  Okay, now what?  As I considered my options of which logs to traverse to the other side, I watched two young couples on the opposite bank appear to easily navigate through and over the logs.  They had obviously done this before.  Well, if they could do it why not me?  Then I think my guardian angel tapped my on the shoulder and said…wait dummy!!  You are not 30yrs old anymore.  And by the way, have you considered the amount of gear on your back, and its cost?  And those logs you are about to do a balancing act on are slicker than the rocks you just climbed.  If you break a leg in the process, how long before someone comes by?  Okay, I convinced myself to retreat to maybe come back another day.  Possibly research other points of access.  So I turned and began my route back down the rocks.  By the way, has anyone ever noticed how it is much easier to climb up than to climb back down?

After careful effort, I did make it back down safely and managed a few shots of the log jam and the walls of the gorge.  I will explore a little deeper on an upcoming visit back to this beautiful area.  This time I managed to listen to my guardian angel.

Christmas on the Plaza

Christmas on the Plaza, Country Club Plaza, Kansas City, MO
Christmas on the Plaza, Country Club Plaza, Kansas City, MO

 

Went to the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City several nights back. Thought I would try to capture something with the Christmas lights for a card. Spent some time with a fellow photographer checking out a few possible locations for a nice sunset over the Plaza.  Unfortunately, the previously predicted 24% sky cover did not materialize.  Such conditions could have provided the elements for a really nice sunset.  But a cloudless sky is all we ultimately had to work with.  After chalking it up to little more than a scouting mission, we grabbed a few shots and my fellow photographer friend decided he should call it a night. I too figured I would capture a few more and head home.  As I walked a few blocks I noticed another photographer at a corner deeply involved in his work.  As I approached I saw he was photographing through a clear crystal ball.  I introduced myself and listened as he explained what he was doing and he then graciously offered me the opportunity the try a few shots through what was like a giant raindrop. Of course the image appeared upside down but that would easily be corrected in post processing.  It was different and certainly produced a unique image for this year’s Christmas card.

Merry Christmas  to all my photography fans and friends